After a week of watching the Olympics, I ask myself what am I taking away from it all? Mostly I am thinking how there is no substitute for consistent practice at achieving excellence. Thinking of the hours Olympians spend daily in swimming, diving, running, lifting, and conditioning puts daily exercise into perspective for me!
Seeing athletes deal with the pressure of their own expectations and those of others and the reality of factors that are not in their control despite their meticulous planning is a tutorial in courage. I am remembering the young gymnast who in the midst of his beautiful routine fell off the pommel horse and simply got back on again to go on, knowing his bid for the gold was over. I think of the swimmer whose goggles slipped as she swam her part of the relay, and how she prevailed with them nearly between her teeth. I think of a runner who was clipped by the runner behind him, and helping each other up, they finished the race together, side by side. I remember Katy Ledecky congratulating her Australian competitor in the water after losing gold to her and embracing silver this time. The take away is “grace under pressure.”
Mostly I remember the handwritten words on a track winner’s shoes: “All for family.” Every winner acknowledged family as both a motivation and an irreplaceable support in their victory. “Family,” whether by blood or by choice, included coaches and all those who believed in them all along the way. Many looked upward as they represented the family of their country, acknowledging not only the physical part of their journey, but the spiritual as well.
While we may feel discouraged by division in our world, by the virus, by poverty, by the looming threat of climate, the Olympic experience reminds us that hard work, a little luck, and joining together with others brings “the gold.” That takeaway keeps us going to children’s sporting events, and endless meetings, and taking care of business consistently in our own lives, one day at a time.
Recovery can represent moving forward after an injury, an addiction, a surgery, an illness, and even a pandemic. Sometimes recovery involves finding something that has been lost, without even knowing that it was lost.
One thing for sure about recovery is that it is not an instant thing, but a process of moving in a different direction. It implies that something before was not going well and there is awareness that some intervention may help to re-shape the situation.
An effective intervention will require pushing forward consistently, one day at a time. The recovery will likely include setbacks and will test the will to begin again, and again, and again. Any kind of recovery requires hope and the encouragement of others, especially those who have walked a walk of recovery.
We are now experiencing a national recovery from the trauma of Covid. There are losses to mourn and grief to acknowledge. Most of us have lost something and are not sure how to recover it or if we can ever recover it. Our recovery from the Covid epidemic requires a new vision of what we really want and value now.
Gratitude is helpful to recovery and a good place to start. It is looking past what we have lost to what we have left and treasuring that. In recovering during my brush with cancer, my gratitude for each and every day of life has been life changing. I have always felt grateful, but now it seems that everything is a miracle, even the ordinary things. Letting my guard down a bit is not unlike taking off the mask. We may never feel completely sure of our safety as we did before, but, nevertheless, we decide to go forward, knowing we no longer have the luxury of taking things for granted. There is genuine confidence in remembering that in the worst of times, we got through it.
It is beautiful to see each other in recovery from whatever has been our challenge. We see courage and creativity in one another as we negotiate new ways and new beginnings. We must remember the importance of patience with each other as we find our ways to something new and maybe even something better.
It may seem a little strange to ask a client suffering from depression if they have any colored pencils. But, once appropriate medication and therapy has been addressed, living with depression can become an art form.
Transforming a notebook into a journal can be an important place to begin the work of art that is your life. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst, made extensive use of color as a symbol of the mental states. His interest in and use of mandalas, or graphic designs, addressed the shadows and motivations in a life that words cannot express.
While coloring books sometimes use pre-made mandalas that are to be personalized with color, a set of colored pencils may be enough to spark the creative process as a helpful antidote for depressive moods. The penciling does not need to be sketching, only rendering. When we allow our unconscious mind to be free in this way, the obsessive loop of worry that often accompanies depression can be interrupted.
In my days of working with emotionally disturbed children, I spent many therapy hours coloring with my young clients. In the silence of those times, more often than not, the unexpressible feelings held within began to find words. As important as my diagnostic manuals and play therapy equipment, my best helpers were long rolls of paper and paints and markers and glue and scissors and all manners of odds and ends.
As adults we spend lots of time in our heads, stressing over the past and “angsting” over the future. For those who live with cyclic depression, especially, this can be a frustrating time of feeling little motivation to do anything and a numbness to the things we used enjoy. A work of art just demands showing up and not trying too hard to figure things out. This can be a good time to give the colored pencils and the journal a chance to speak to us from our “deep heart’s core.”
Most people are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally acceptance or transformation. These do not necessarily progress in discreet order.
The stages of negotiating fear and fright are not so different, especially when facing a diagnosis of chronic disease and especially cancer. In her book, The Fear Cure, Lisa Rankin, MD, describes the process: “Coming into the right relationship with your fear requires befriending it, getting curious about it, listening to your scared parts without letting them hijack your whole system, and helping to calm the parts that are frightened so the hormones of stress dissipate and the biochemical soup of intimacy, which are healing hormones, sets the hormonal stage for the possibility of radical remission.”
In my own experience of hearing the “cancer” word, I have walked through these steps. First, you really feel fine and just can’t believe that something so threatening can be inside you doing its deadly thing. Once this begins to seep into your consciousness, there is the gathering of anger and a strong urge to fight—“cut, burn, poison” it. My own way of facing things usually leads to a kind of negotiating to a reasonable solution. I began to realize that cancer isn’t about negotiating—it is about renegade destruction with no will to negotiate! Then comes the choice: succumb or try to listen and understand.
I have always loved Marie Curie’s take: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” And, that is where I am finding myself these days, learning and understanding how cancer happens and how it works and how to apply that knowledge on my way back to confidence. A lot of help is available from experts, but the real fight is on the battlefield of the mind. Love and support from family and friends strengthen one for a war that breaks out in unexpected battles.
The best stage of fright is the patina that develops after facing frights. Negotiating the Dallas airport on the way back from Texas was a “piece of cake” after having looked far scarier terrains in the eye! What may be scaring you these days and where are you in the process of looking it in the eye for understanding?
Have you ever read the life-changing magic of tidying up by Marie Kondo? Marie was born in Tokyo, Japan, and is an organizing consultant. I began reading her books several years ago and then serendipitously discovered her videos. The segments begin with her meeting and greeting her clients and their home, which is always in complete disarray, especially the garages. The best part is when this tiny dynamo throws up her arms and says with great enthusiasm, “I LOVE A MESS!”
Only someone with vision can see through a mess and be able to stand the ugly in order to see the beautiful within. At the end of Marie’s work, an amazed family walks through a home they could not even imagine was functional and beautiful.
Spring is a lot like this. Under the mud and debris that has piled up during a very long winter, a single blade of green appears. It is the promise of something beautiful that was always there but was hidden and waiting for the right time to appear.
Life gives us plenty of help in making and facing messes of all kinds. Sometimes the messes are traumas that have been stored in the mind and body for a long time. Sometimes problems seem to pile up like a bundle of bills in the mailbox. It is tempting to close our eyes, so to speak, and decide not to deal with any of it.
That is when we most need to consider digging out of our own personal winters and dare to look for signs of spring and new possibilities.
Therapy is a lot like this experience. While I have not yet arrived at saying ,“I love a mess,” the ultimate experience of spring is to be a part in helping a a person to re-discover their own radiant essence. It may even have been “underground” and hidden for a very long time.
Keep your eyes open for green shoots!